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Healing the people, healing the land

Two physicians recount their visit to the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre

Indigenous PoliticsEnvironment

Residents of the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre gather in support of Wet’suwet’en members resisting the construction of a gas pipeline through their traditional territory, February 2020. Photo by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

Recommendation number 21 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reads: “We call upon the federal government to provide sustainable funding for existing and new Aboriginal healing centres to address the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual harms caused by residential schools, and to ensure that the funding of healing centres in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories is a priority.”

As two doctors with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), we traveled to Wet’suwet’en territory to learn about the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre. The Centre is located in the northwestern part of British Columbia on the territory of the Unist’ot’en (C’ihlts’ehkhyu / Big Frog Clan)—one of five house clans comprising the Wetsuwet’en Nation. It is a remote and rural area, and most people living in southern urban communities are unaware of the remarkable activity taking place there to “heal the land and heal the people.”

After applying for and receiving permission for our visit, we borrowed a four-wheel drive truck from some colleagues in the area and drove from Smithers to the Morice River forest service road, located close to Houston. At kilometre 66 we came across a checkpoint—a solid structure built by the side of the road and staffed around the clock. We were greeted by a friendly young man who was aware of our impending visit (“Oh, you’re the doctors!”) and asked us to proceed.

Unist’ot’en Healing Centre. Photo by Margaret McGregor.

We pulled into an area that was striking for the presence of multiple newly constructed buildings on both sides of the road. This was in remarkable contrast to the more than 60 kilometre stretch of forest service road we had just driven on, where we had spotted almost no other buildings.

It then dawned on us why people refer to Unist’ot’en as a “village.” We also learned that the many homes, garages, workshops and other structures have partly been constructed with wood harvested on Unist’ot’en territory and milled at the village.

The three village leaders—Unist’ot’en hereditary female chiefs (Dzeke ze’) Freda Huson, and Brenda Michell (Geltiy), and Dr. Karla Tait (Freda’s niece and Brenda’s daughter)—came out to greet us.

Outside the Healing Centre, standing in the sun, we went through what is referred to as “protocol” where we were asked by Freda to identify who we were, where we came from, and what skills we could bring to support their efforts. This interaction is intended to establish the principal of free, prior and informed consent by the Unist’ot’en for permission to enter their territory.

As two family physicians with zero skills in carpentry or construction (skills identified on the Unist’ot’en website as being useful attributes for visitors to the space), we stumbled over the last question.

I asked Freda if other visitors found the question “What can you offer to help us?” difficult to answer. Freda smiled and remarked that David Suzuki had only come up to visit for one day. He too found it hard to answer. However, sometime after the visit, the renowned environmentalist and broadcaster nominated her for the prestigious Right Livelihood Award, known otherwise as the “alternative Nobel” prize. She received the award this September for her “fearless dedication to reclaiming her people’s culture and defending their land against disastrous pipeline projects.”

The Healing Centre was built in three phases starting in 2016. Construction was led by volunteers under the supervision of Dave Ages, a longtime ally of the Unist’ot’en. Dave and his partner, Virginia Monk, first came to the territory because they had heard about its opposition against the Enbridge pipeline at that time. This opposition started when Freda moved there in 2010 to live in a cabin located directly in the path of the company’s proposed pipeline route.

The two main buildings in the village (the Healing Centre and the workshop) are heated with a sophisticated high-efficiency wood gasification boiler that needs to be regularly fed with wood. The heat warms up the floors making for an extremely comfortable and cozy temperature.

Unist’ot’en hereditary female chief and Right Livelihood Award winner Freda Huson. Photo courtesy Right Livelihood.

We learned that, over the decades, a total of 11 companies had announced their intention to build various pipelines across Wet’suwet’en territory to get bitumen, oil, and natural gas to tidewater for export. The clans of the Wet’suwet’en never ceded their sovereignty over the land and the Unist’ot’en built a village on the territory to reinforce this fact.

The most recent threat is from the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline, which would transport fracked gas from the northeastern part of the province across Wet’suwet’en territory to tidewater for liquefaction and export.

A major concern of the Wet’suwet’en clans is CGL’s proposed plan to drill under the Wedzin Kwa (Morice River) to construct its 670 kilometre fracked gas pipeline. Indeed, in 2020, the three Unist’ot’en matriarchs were recognized by Chatelaine as “Women of the Year” for their fierce protection of Wedzin Kwa and the territory through which it runs.

The river starts at Morice Lake and runs for about 70 kilometres across Wet’suwet’en territory where it joins the Bulkley River at Houston and then flows northwest to join the Skeena River—the second longest waterway in British Columbia. It is one of few remaining pristine rivers whose water is drinkable without treatment and nourishes multiple species of salmon. The Wet’suwet’en people consider the river sacred due to its life-supporting role on their land for thousands of years.

Since early October, major efforts to protect the Wedzin Kwa have been underway, led by Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters. This added a sense of urgency to our visit.

After we completed protocol and everyone went back to their respective tasks, Dave gave us a brief introduction to the village. When Dave first visited in 2014, he asked Freda—who had been living in a log home along the Wedzin Kwa since 2010—how he could help. Freda immediately responded saying “Please build a bunk house so that I don’t have all the volunteers coming to support Unist’to’en efforts to stop the pipeline, sleeping in my home.” We learned that at some point before the bunkhouse was built, Freda was housing up to 15 people.

The Wedzin Kwa (Morice River), a critical source of pristine drinking water. Photo by Allegra Friesen Epp.

Freda’s second request was to build a healing lodge where Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous people could come to begin to regain their mental and physical health, manage their addictions and heal from the myriad traumas of colonization.

On that first morning, as we stood in the sun chatting with the three remarkable women who run the Centre and indeed the entire village, Freda shared two powerful stories of land-based cultural healing.

In the first, she described a Wet’suwet’en family who had contacted her to ask whether their son, who was living in Vancouver at the time and struggling with addictions, could come to stay to begin his journey to health.

Freda welcomed this man to the territory. After he had arrived and settled in, she loaned him a Ski-Doo and sent him off to trap. This was a skill he had learned as a child that allowed him to reconnect to the land. Over the course of his stay he thrived, but eventually decided to return to the city.

Sometime later he contacted Freda expressing a desire to return to Unist’ot’en where again he reconnected with the land and regained his spiritual and mental health. This time, when he expressed a desire to return to Vancouver, Freda offered him a paying job to assist with maintenance and was something he was doing already.

As a paid employee, working at a place he had grown to love, he decided to stay. At the time he was also suffering from a concurrent physical illness that slowly progressed and from which he died some time later. However, at the time of his passing and as he became sicker, his family was with him. They remain deeply grateful for the Unist’ot’en Centre and Freda’s support for his successful journey of spiritual and mental healing.

A second story Freda shared was of an Indigenous couple she was constantly bumping into when she went into Smithers to do chores. The couple was living on the streets and both were heavily addicted to alcohol. She encouraged them to come to the Healing Centre and eventually the woman accepted her invitation.

Living on the land, this woman recovered from her addiction and convinced her husband to come to the Centre. His addiction to alcohol was stronger and he had not undergone any kind of detox prior to his arrival. However, they had acquired the necessary medication for alcohol withdrawal and his wife provided one-on-one, 24-hour support as he successfully underwent the painful process of detoxification.

Smiling, Freda recounted that had she known then what she knows now—about the potential dangers of withdrawing from alcohol without medical support nearby—she would never have agreed to this. That said, the couple has since done well and the woman’s daughter, who was in foster care, successfully reunited with her family. Freda is in regular touch with them and tells us they are thriving.

Dr. Karla Tait is the clinical director of the Healing Centre. Karla received her undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia and also has a masters and doctorate in psychology from University of South Dakota where she completed her thesis and dissertation on psychological first aid, including a participatory action study of frontline workers with a community of the Lakota Nation. At the time of her defense several years ago, Karla had moved back to BC and was living in the territory in Witset (Moricetown). She defended her dissertation while working for the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) and parenting Oyate, her daughter, then about five years old.

On the day we arrived at the Centre, Karla was scrambling to submit a grant application to the FNHA for piloting a novel approach to supporting people with addictions. The grant aimed to combine the evidence on harm reduction and safe supply with land-based cultural healing. Whereas most services—whether treatment or land-based healing—require participants to have withdrawn from a substance and remain abstinent during the course of a program, the Unist’ot’en healing approach is proposing to not make abstinence a pre-requisite to participation but rather to meet the individual where they’re at.

In the case of alcohol dependency this might be to design an alcohol maintenance program. In the case of opiate dependence, this might be to initiate opioid agonist treatment (OAT), or set up a regime of prescribed opiate maintenance. Despite the added challenges of finding MDs in northern BC with the willingness, skills and competencies in OAT and safe supply prescribing, Dr. Tait had successfully managed to recruit appropriate practitioners in time to submit her application.

The land-based cultural healing activities would be overseen by Freda who already had considerable experience with this, and where the Centre has successfully run a number of such programs over the past several years.

Hereditary Chief Brenda Michell is perhaps less well known but plays an equally important role at the Centre and within the village. Brenda is a Wet’suwet’en language and cultural teacher. Her role is to help ensure that Centre programming is grounded in an Indigenous worldview, considered critical to creating a decolonized healing program. Brenda is currently gaining certification as a chemical addictions worker through the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology’s certificate program and will also help provide counseling to Healing Centre program participants.

These three women work together to run the Centre, which requires a massive amount of maintenance from feeding the high efficiency wood heater twice daily, to meal preparation for both regular inhabitants of the village but also multiple visitors.

Catering for anywhere from 10 to 100 people, and hosting guests and supporters to the Centre can itself be a full-time occupation. Over the brief time we were there, I would often see Brenda or Karla poring over recipes for a wonderful variety of meals we enjoyed including bannock tacos and salmon with quinoa. Not only did Brenda’s cooking skills impress me, but I was struck by their attention to presentation and meticulous accommodation of people with food sensitivities.

An old sign located in a root cellar reads “United Against Enbridge.” Photo by Margaret McGregor.

On a few occasions I assisted Brenda in preparing containers for the volunteers staffing the checkpoint who would eagerly show up at meal times to pick up their fare. As I slopped up scoops of food into random mounds, she made a point of re-arranging my work into a beautiful presentation that would have been the envy of any gourmet takeout restaurant.

In addition to the novel land-based cultural healing program, the village has a strong public health and first aid system. COVID-19 protocols in place were well defined and strictly adhered to, and would have impressed any medical health officer with their detailed consideration. Those allowed access inside the buildings were restricted to small “pods” with no mixing between the groups indoors. Hand sanitizer and masks were routinely worn in common areas.

During our stay, at Freda’s request, we reviewed the first aid room to identify items that needed updating or that were missing. Apart from the absence of rapid COVID-19 tests—something we were able to supply—we found the room to be well-stocked.

Seemingly undaunted by the massive task of running the Healing Centre programs (let alone an entire village), these three women approach their work with optimism and enthusiasm. On the night before we were scheduled to leave, Freda returned home in the early evening after being away overnight in Smithers. Despite this, after dinner, as we sat digesting our food and thinking about when we could respectably go to bed, we saw Freda racing around the Centre in a highly energetic game of tag with her niece. To an outsider, it looked like a draw as to who was the faster runner. Freda later explained that the game was part of training Oyate to become a skilled hunter.

As we departed from our short visit, we both felt deeply privileged to have had a chance to bear witness to this space and the Unist’ot’en’s efforts to “heal the land and heal the people.” We reflected on how our visit helped us better understand the centuries-old and sacred relationship of the Wet’suwet’en people with the land—something non-Indigenous people must learn from if humanity is to find its way to restoring planetary health.

Sawmill that produces wood for construction of buildings at the site. Photo by Margaret McGregor.

Meal preparation at the Healing Centre. Photo by Margaret McGregor.

To learn more about the efforts of the Wet’suwet’en, or to make a donation, visit the websites of the Unist’ot’en Camp, Gidimt’en Yintah Access and the Sovereign Likhts’amisyu and Namoks.

Dr. Margaret McGregor is a clinical associate professor with the UBC Department of Family Practice. She currently works with the home-bound primary care program Home ViVE (Home Visits for Vancouver’s Elders). She is an active member of the BC Chapter of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).

Dr. Larry Barzelai is a family physician based in Vancouver, BC. He currently serves on the national Board of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) and is Chair of the BC Chapter of CAPE.

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